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Supreme court evolved the jurisprudence of compensation to those persons whose right to life is violated by state’s action.

Though illegal detention and custodial torture were recognized as violations of the fundamental rights of life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21, to begin with, only the following reliefs were being granted in writ petitions under Article 32 or 226:

 a) direction to set at liberty the person detained, if the complaint was one of illegal detention.

b) direction to the concerned Government to hold an inquiry and take action against the officers responsible for the violation.

c) If the enquiry or action taken by the concerned department was found to be not satisfactory, to direct an inquiry by an independent agency, usually the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Compensation as a Public law remedy

Award of compensation as a public law remedy for violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, in addition to the private law remedy under the Law of Torts, was evolved in the last two and half decades.

Khatri v. State of Bihar

In the Bhagalpur Blinding case, [Khatri (II) vs State of Bihar, 1981 (1) SCC 627], Bhagwati J., (as he then was), speaking for the Bench, posed the following question while considering the relief that could be given by a court for violation of constitutional rights guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution

“… but if life or personal liberty is violated otherwise than in accordance with such procedure, is the Court helpless to grant relief to the person who has suffered such deprivation? Why should the court not be prepared to forge new tools and devise new remedies for the purpose of vindicating the most precious of the precious fundamental right to life and personal liberty.”

The question was expanded in a subsequent order in Bhagalpur Blinding case [Khatri (IV) vs State of Bihar, 1981 (2) SCC 493), thus: –

“If an officer of the State acting in his official capacity threatens to deprive a person of his life or personal liberty without the authority of law, can such person not approach the court for injuncting the State from acting through such officer in violation of his fundamental right under Article 21? Can the State urge in defence in such a case that it is not infringing the fundamental right of the petitioner under Article 21, because the officer who is threatening to do so is acting outside the law and therefore beyond the scope of his authority and hence the State is not responsible for his action ? Would this not make a mockery of Article 21 and reduce it to nullity, a mere rope of sand, for, on this view, if the officer is acting according to law there would ex concessionis be no breach of Article 21 and if he is acting without the authority of law, the State would be able to contend that it is not responsible for his action and therefore there is no violation of Article 21.

So also if there is any threatened invasion by the State of the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21, the petitioner who is aggrieved can move the court under Article 32 for a writ injuncting such threatened invasion and if there is any continuing action of the State which is violative of the fundamental right under Article 21, the petitioner can approach the court under Article 32and ask for a writ striking down the continuance of such action, but where the action taken by the State has already resulted in breach of the fundamental right under Article 21 by deprivation of some limb of the petitioner, would the petitioner have no remedy under Article 32 for breach of the fundamental right guaranteed to him ?

Would the court permit itself to become helpless spectator of the violation of the fundamental right of the petitioner by the State and tell the petitioner that though the Constitution has guaranteed the fundamental right to him and has also given him the fundamental right of moving the court for enforcement of his fundamental right, the court cannot give him any relief.”

Answering the said questions, it was held that when a court trying the writ petition proceeds to inquire into the violation of any right to life or personal liberty, while in police custody, it does so, not for the purpose of adjudicating upon the guilt of any particular officer with a view to punishing him but for the purpose of deciding whether the fundamental right of the petitioners under Article 21 has been violated and the State is liable to pay compensation to them for such violation.

Rudal Sah v. State of Bihar

In Rudul Sah vs. State of Bihar [1983 (4) SCC 141], the petitioner therein approached the Court under Article 32 of the Constitution alleging that though he was acquitted by the Sessions Court on 3.6.1968, he was released from jail only on 6.10.1982, after 14 years, and sought compensation for his illegal detention.

Court while recognizing that Article 32 cannot be used as a substitute for the enforcement of rights and obligations which can be enforced efficaciously through the ordinary processes of courts, civil and criminal, raised for consideration the important question as to whether in the exercise of its jurisdiction under Article 32, this Court can pass an order for payment of money, as compensation for the deprivation of a fundamental right.

The Court answered the question thus while awarding compensation: –

“Article 21 which guarantees the right to life and liberty will be denuded of its significant content if the power of this Court were limited to passing orders of release from illegal detention. One of the telling ways in which the violation of that right can reasonably be prevented and due compliance with the mandate of Article 21 secured, is to mulct its violators in the payment of monetary compensation.

The right to compensation is some palliative for the unlawful acts of instrumentalities which act in the name of public interest and which present for their protection the powers of the State as a shield. If civilisation is not to perish in this country as it has perished in some others too well-known to suffer mention, it is necessary to educate ourselves into accepting that, respect for the rights of individuals is the true bastion of democracy. Therefore, the State must repair the damage done by its officers to the petitioner’s rights. It may have recourse against those officers.”

Rudul Sah was followed in

  • Bhim Singh vs. State of J&K [1985 (4) SCC 677] and
  • Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights vs. Police Commissioner, Delhi Police Headquarters [1989 (4) SCC 730].

Nilabati Behera vs. State of Orissa

The law was crystallized in Nilabati Behera vs. State of Orissa [1993 (2) SCC 746]. In that case, the deceased was arrested by the police, handcuffed and kept in a police custody. The next day, his dead-body was found on a railway track.

This Court awarded compensation to the mother of the deceased. J.S. Verma J., (as he then was) spelt out the following principles: –

“Award of compensation in a proceeding under Article 32 by this Court or by the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution is a remedy available in public law, based on strict liability for contravention of fundamental rights to which the principle of sovereign immunity does not apply, even though it may be available as a defence in private law in an action based on tort.

A claim in public law for compensation for contravention of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the protection of which is guaranteed in the Constitution, is an acknowledged remedy for enforcement and protection of such rights, and such a claim based on strict liability made by resorting to a constitutional remedy provided for the enforcement of a fundamental right is ‘distinct from, and in addition to, the remedy in private law for damages for the tort’ resulting from the contravention of the fundamental right.

The defence of sovereign immunity being inapplicable, and alien to the concept of guarantee of fundamental rights, there can be no question of such a defence being available in the constitutional remedy. It is this principle which justifies award of monetary compensation for contravention of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, when that is the only practicable mode of redress available for the contravention made by the State or its servants in the purported exercise of their powers, and enforcement of the fundamental right is claimed by resort to the remedy in public law under the Constitution by recourse to Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution.”

D. K. Basu v. State of West Bengal

In D. K. Basu v. State of West Bengal (1997 (1) SCC, the Court again considered exhaustively the question and held that monetary compensation should be awarded for established infringement of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21. The Court held: –

“Custodial violence, including torture and death in the lock ups strikes a blow at the Rule of Law, which demands that the powers of the executive should not only be derived from law but also that the same should be limited by law.

Police is, no doubt, under a legal duty and has legitimate right to arrest a criminal and to interrogate him during the investigation of an offence but it must be remembered that the law does not permit use of third degree methods or torture of accused in custody during interrogation and investigation with a view to solve the crime. End cannot justify the means. The interrogation and investigation into a crime should be in true sense purposeful to make the investigation effective. By torturing a person and using third degree methods, the police would be accomplishing behind the closed doors what the demands of our legal order forbid. No society can permit it.”

Sube singh v. state of Haryana[1]

In the case, while considering the scope of awarding compensation to victims, the court said:-

“In cases where custodial death or custodial torture or other violation of the rights guaranteed under Article 21 is established, courts may award compensation in a proceeding under Article 32 or 226.

However, before awarding compensation, the Court will have to pose to itself the following questions:

(a) Whether the violation of Article 21 is patent and incontrovertible,

(b) whether the violation is gross and of a magnitude to shock the conscience of the court,

(c) whether the custodial torture alleged has resulted in death or whether custodial torture is supported by medical report or visible marks or scars or disability.

Where there is no evidence of custodial torture of a person except his own statement, and where such allegation is not supported by any medical report or other corroboration evidence, or where there are clear indications that the allegations are false or exaggerated fully or in part, courts may not award compensation as a public law remedy under Article 32 or 226, but relegate the aggrieved party to the traditional remedies by way of appropriate civil/criminal action.

We should not, however, be understood as holding that harassment and custodial violence is not serious or worthy of consideration, where there is no medical report or visible marks or independent evidence. We are conscious of the fact that harassment or custodial violence cannot always be supported by a medical report or independent evidence or proved by marks or scars. Every illegal detention irrespective of its duration, and every custodial violence, irrespective of its degree or magnitude, is outright condemnable and per se actionable. Remedy for such violation is available in civil law and criminal law. The public law remedy is additionally available where the conditions mentioned in the earlier para are satisfied. We may also note that this Court has softened the degree of proof required in criminal prosecution relating to such matters.”

State of MP vs. Shyamsunder Trivedi

In State of MP vs. Shyamsunder Trivedi – 1995 (4) SCC 262, the Court observed :-

“Rarely in cases of police torture or custodial death, direct ocular evidence of the complicity of the police personnel would be available…… Bound as they are by the ties of brotherhood, it is not unknown that the police personnel prefer to remain silent and more often than not even pervert the truth to save their colleagues………. The exaggerated adherence to and insistence upon the establishment of proof beyond every reasonable doubt, by the prosecution, ignoring the ground realities, the fact-situations and the peculiar circumstances of a given case….., often results in miscarriage of justice and makes the justice delivery system a suspect.

In the ultimate analysis the society suffers and a criminal gets encouraged. Tortures in police custody, which of late are on the increase, receive encouragement by this type of an unrealistic approach of the Courts because it reinforces the belief in the mind of the police that no harm would come to them, if an odd prisoner dies in the lock-up, because there would hardly be any evidence available to the prosecution to directly implicate them with the torture.”

It is thus now well settled that award of compensation against the State is an appropriate and effective remedy for redress of an established infringement of a fundamental right under Article 21, by a public servant. The quantum of compensation will, however, depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case. Award of such compensation (by way of public law remedy) will not come in the way of the aggrieved person claiming additional compensation in a civil court, in enforcement of the private law remedy in tort, nor come in the way of the criminal court ordering compensation under section 357 of Code of Civil Procedure.


Sube Singh v. State of Haryana, (2006 3 SCC 178)

[1] (2006 3 SCC 178)